Throwback Thursday: The audacity of Phyllis Wheatley as observed by June Jordan

We live in strange times. Yesterday, as Zerlina has discussed, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. And while Scalia barked that VRA is the “perpetuation of racial entitlement,” less than half a mile away, the Rosa Parks Statue was unveiled at the Capital Building in honor of Park’s activism that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. The same building that was built by African slaves. Yesterday was also the 71st anniversary of the Supreme Court’s upholding the 19th amendment that protected the right to vote for women. What a strange and poetic irony of a day was February 27, 2013; a normal day in American life, proof of our complicate history and forces that would undo our progress forward to a more perfect union.

Rosa Parks would have been 100 years old this month, this year. And I hope by now we’re all a little bit wiser about her role in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, how her activism extended beyond a sweet distillation of a woman too tired to give up her seat, but as a soldier and strategist to end Jim Crow segregation in the South, to demand equal protection for Black citizens nationally. There is no better home for a statue in the halls where her work (with so many countless others) culminated in the passage of the most successful civil rights legislation of our time.

Lawyers representing Shelby County, Mississippi would like us all to believe that racism is over and all is equal. Certainly, if we truly believe that racial discrimination is a thing of the past America’s first two-term serving African American president, the 43 of 435 African American representatives in Congress (along with 31 Latino representatives, 12 Asian Americans, 7 openly gay representatives) constitutes massive change; the first session of Congress to have the widest representation of the American electorate in history, then my god, we have come so very, very far in the 148 years since the end of the Civil War. Mississippi’s oversight in ratification of the 13th Amendment just 3 weeks ago comforts me greatly in this regard. I should also be comforted by wild schemes to adjust the mathematical outcomes in states controlled by the GOP who seeking to remap voting districts and shift representations and electoral college outcomes. Democracy without oversight works, right? 

The audacity of the old order.

Days after the November election, I re-read June Jordan’s essay, “The Difficult Miracle Of Black Poetry.” Jordan’s refrain, ‘It was not natural. And she was the first…’ looped in my mind for days after. It was a comforting meditation. I needed to look back at how far we’ve come as a new chapter in the American experiment begins. In a culture that still seems to stumble, mock and devalue or other names of brown bodies that differ from their norm…girls named Quvenzhané, boys named Barack (it was not natural, and s(he) is the first), it seemed appropriate to revisit Jordan’s tribute to Wheatley on the last day of Black History Month:

It was not natural. And she was the first. Come from a country of many tongues tortured by rupture, by theft, by travel like mismatched clothing packed down into the cargo hold of evil ships sailing, irreversible, into slavery. Come to a country to be docile and dumb, to be big and breeding, easily, to be turkey/horse/cow, to be cook/carpenter/plow, to be 5’6” 140 lbs., in good condition and answering to the name of Tom or Mary: to be bed bait: to be legally spread legs for rape by the master/the master’s son/the master’s overseer/the master’s visiting nephew: to be nothing human nothing family nothing from nowhere nothing that screams nothing that weeps nothing that dreams nothing that keeps anything/anyone deep in your heart: to live forcibly illiterate, forcibly itinerant: to live eyes lowered head bowed: to be worked without rest, to be worked without pay, to be worked without thanks, to be worked day up to nightfall: to be three-fifths of a human being at best: to be this valuable/this hated thing among strangers who purchased your life and then cursed it unceasingly: to be a slave: to be a slave. Come to this country a slave and how should you sing? After the flogging the lynch rope the general terror and weariness what should you know of a lyrical life? How could you, belonging to no one, but property to those despising the smiles of your soul, how could you dare to create yourself: a poet?

Indeed. Jordan’s prose is searching and marvels at the sheer audacity of Phyllis Wheatley, to dare to have a humane and inner life, to imagine herself and her body worth that care in that world. Wheatley as a poet in slave owning America was some of the earliest work to assert the humanity of black bodies in such a society. The triumphant and tragedy of an American life. A symbol and witness that out of such rot something beautiful emerges. Isn’t that what Quvenzhané’s Hushpuppy is trying to show us? Isn’t that where Rosa led us? We ain’t come this far to turn back now.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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